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What Are Medicinal Mushrooms? – Medicinal Mushrooms 101

medicinal mushrooms

Without a doubt, the most popular medicinal use of mushrooms since the 1960s has been the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms by psychonauts determined to ‘expand their minds.’ However, in the last couple of decades, the vast array of different medicinal mushrooms – both psychedelic and otherwise – have made an appearance on the world stage.

There are many different types of medicinal mushrooms, each capable of providing various benefits. They tend to excel at helping people boost their immunity and improve their cognitive functioning. They’re also loaded with antioxidants that can help to prevent cancer and fight disease.

This article will explore the use of various medicinal mushrooms and explain how people use, cultivate, and even learn to communicate with these fantastic organisms.

Medicinal Mushrooms & The Doctrine of Signatures

The classic herbal “Doctrine of Signatures” can be employed several ways in regards to mushrooms and fungi. The Doctrine of Signatures is an age-old method of understanding plants that emerged naturally during a time when humanity had not yet inscribed its knowledge on paper or papyrus, let alone made available the entire repository of human learning on the internet.

Prior to this, learning about plants had to be done either by oral tradition, with a herbalist passing on knowledge to an apprentice, or by working directly with the plants themselves. The latter is something of a lost art. So lost, in fact, that the average individual will laugh and disregard someone who claims to be sitting and listening to the plants.

Nonetheless, plants do communicate quite a lot of information to us, much of which is done simply by virtue of the way that they exist in nature. By some definitions, the Doctrine of Signatures suggests that only a plant’s physical appearance indicates its usefulness. However, you can learn much more from careful, unstructured observation of their texture, makeup, location, scent, function, taste, and other features.

If you’re interested in intuiting more about plants, simply set aside a block of time to sit quietly with your favorite plants. Breathe deeply and try to shut off your thinking mind, allowing any images and sensations to flow through you as you learn. As far as mushrooms go, the Doctrine of Signatures shows us several interesting things.

Fungal organisms are very hardy and durable. Most of what we would commonly identify as mushrooms – the often-phallic bit that emerges above the surface of the ground – might not seem this way at first, soft and fleshy as they are. However, these are actually only one part of a much larger organism. The mushroom itself is the fruiting body of the organism, but the majority of the organism exists underground in the form of a mycelial network, or mycelium, that connects the fruiting bodies to one another.

The mycelial network provides significant resilience to a fungus. Multiple fruiting bodies can be harvested, eaten, or damaged, while doing very little damage to the organism itself aside from limiting the number of spores for it to spread. This reflects many of the mushrooms’ abilities to enhance vitality and function as adaptogens, allowing us to push through various physical and mental stressors without letting them damage us too badly.

Mushrooms that grow off the side of trees, such as the many conks (including the famous reishi!) are resilient simply due to their physical hardness. These mushrooms may have a slightly soft underside compared to the shell-like upper side, although neither the top nor bottom would yield to anything less than an incredibly sharp knife. These mushrooms tend to provide people with a powerhouse of vitality and holistic health.

Furthermore, consider the function of a mycelial network. It connects numerous individual fruiting bodies and allows them to communicate with one another. Thus the mycelium can transmit ‘messages’ of a sort across long distances and functions in a similar way as a neural network allows brain and nerve cells to communicate over a comparatively large distance. A mycelial network seen from a zoomed-out vantage looks nearly identical to a close-up of a neural network. So it’s really no surprise that many mushrooms can help the brain work better.

Even though these mushrooms might be somewhat of a novelty in North America at the moment, this certainly isn’t the case throughout the world. In China, medicinal mushrooms have been valued as some of the strongest healing supplements for thousands of years.

  • Reishi mushrooms and lion’s mane fungi are revered as some of the best supplements for fighting age and increasing longevity.
  • The shiitake mushrooms that we find in our soup have profound medicinal benefits.
  • Fungi like the cordyceps have been used to help bolster the physical condition of human beings for ages.
  • The white button mushrooms that we typically eat in European cuisine might not be as powerfully potent as some of these stronger mushrooms, but they’re still pretty good for you.
  • A distinctly Western phenomenon, the ergot fungus which grows on rye bread led to the development and synthesis of LSD.

Health Properties of Mushrooms

Mushrooms have been used by healers and natural health practitioners for ages to help stabilize the human body and promote cleansing and healing. This is unsurprisingly the same role that they play in their natural environment: stabilizing the soil while helping to cleanse and heal the area around them. Mushrooms catalyse the breakdown of organic cmpunds into fulvic acid and mab diocac9desrfv

Mushrooms are low-fat, low-calorie foods that are filled with fiber and loaded with nutrients. They also contain a number of other different active compounds, including polysaccharides, indoles, polyphenols, and carotenoids, many of which are responsible for their powerful medicinal properties.

They are also a good source of amino acids, most notably glutamate, which is also responsible for the rich umami flavor that mushrooms lend to meals that they’re cooked to.

Mushrooms aren’t technically plants, but they’re not animals, either. These fungi contain ergosterol, a cholesterol-like compound that is transformed into vitamin D when it’s exposed to ultraviolet light. They’re also known to contain other vitamins and minerals, namely selenium, copper, potassium, phosphorus, and several B vitamins.

Culinary mushrooms, such as the shiitake and maitake, have numerous medicinal properties – whether or not the cooks know that these ingredients are powerful natural remedies depends on their education.

Many mushrooms’ medicinal uses, however — especially those of the shelf mushrooms (which include the infamous reishi) which grow, shelf-like, protruding from the bark of trees) — are woody and hard to eat. These often contain many medicinal compounds, but they must be prepared differently.

Medicinal Mushrooms Benefits

shiitake mushrooms

Mushrooms, medicinal and otherwise, are a powerhouse of nutrients. They contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and protein, all of which are important for the growth of the human body. These are a few examples of some of the nutrients found in mushrooms:

  • B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid)
  • Selenium
  • Vitamin D
  • Phosphorous
  • Copper
  • Potassium
  • Choline

On top of that, different types of mushrooms contain different ingredients that can produce unique and powerful medicinal benefits. Each mushroom will have its own set of active ingredients. This is why different mushrooms will have different benefits.

Here are a few benefits that are attributed to numerous different mushrooms.

1. Increasing Heart Health

Mushrooms can help the heart in a number of different ways.

One way that they’re useful for the heart and the cardiovascular system at large is by providing the body with a special fiber. This fiber is called beta glucan, and it’s found in most types of mushrooms. Beta glucan helps to improve cholesterol levels and regulate blood sugar. Oyster mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms are believed to be the best fungal sources of this nutrient.

Most mushrooms contain a fairly significant amount of potassium. Potassium is one of the most important electrolytes in the body. It performs a number of functions, not the least of which is ensuring that our blood pressure remains stable.

2. Enhancing Immunity

Perhaps the most well-known benefit of mushrooms is their ability to boost the immune system. Different mushrooms are able to do this in different ways. Some help to increase the production of macrophages, a type of white blood cell that targets harmful invaders in the body.

3. Fighting Off Cancer

Mushrooms are loaded with antioxidants. As you probably know by now, antioxidants help to prevent — you guessed it! — oxidation. Oxidation is the natural degradation of cells and cellular components that occurs when they are exposed to oxygen — yes, the same oxygen that you’re breathing right now. Yes, oxidation is horrifying when you think about it. Try not to.

About 98% of the oxygen inhaled is converted into usable energy. The rest of it is turned into oxidative byproducts: free radicals, which wreak havoc on the body. These free radicals are unstable and, in their search for stability, tend to cause reactions in other, stable cells. This generally results in mutations which can eventually be able to cause diseases like cancer.

Top Medicinal Mushrooms

Chaga

Chaga mushrooms

The chaga mushroom is a very powerful and very rare mushroom. Though considered a shelf mushroom, chaga looks more like a woody growth than a typical shelf mushroom. Chaga is an incredibly rich source of antioxidants and is one of the best mushrooms for helping to boost the immune system and for enhancing vitality.

One of the best ways to enjoy chaga while maximizing its nutritional benefit is by soaking the herb in hot water and allowing it to simmer at a very low temperature for several days. This powerful decoction will extract most of the valuable organic compounds in the chaga.

To really enjoy the experience. You can add other things like chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon to the mixture to enhance the flavor as well as the nutritional benefits.

Cordyceps

cordyceps mushroom
This image was created by user Daryl Thompson (woobs) at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like many of the other mushrooms on this list, cordyceps can help to enhance the immune system and the cardiovascular system. These properties are common among most of the medicinals.

Cordyceps however, excels in the area of treating respiratory ailments. It has been used historically to help people manage all manner of different respiratory conditions ranging from bronchitis to asthma.

Cordyceps is also often included in formulations for enhancing sexual health and performance. Its ability to enhance energy levels and improve respiration and blood flow may be an aid to sexual health.

Lion’s Mane

loinsmane

The lion’s mane mushroom is regarded as being one of the best mushroom supplements for improving cognitive health. It supports the development of new neural pathways and brain cells, thus enhancing overall cognition. It can increase an individual’s memory, their ability to form logical conclusions, creativity, and executive functioning.

Lion’s mane seems to excel at helping seniors who are approaching the age of cognitive decline. It has been shown in numerous studies to be useful for helping to slow the progress of cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.

In addition to this, the mushroom provides people with the same benefits as many other machines, such as enhanced immunity, improved energy levels, and increased overall well-being.

Reishi

reishi mushroom

The reishi mushroom is one of the most well-known and well-studied medicinal mushrooms in the world. Reishi has been a popular component of Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. This deep red shelf mushroom is an extremely dense source of many different antioxidants and can help the immune system thrive.

Reishi is often used as an energy tonic and it helps to revitalize the various organs of the body. Traditional formulas employ reishi for helping to reverse the physical and mental effects of aging.

Turkey Tail

turkey tail mushroom

The turkey tail mushroom grows on the side of dead alders and various other trees. Turkey tail does not have as wide of a range of medicinal benefits as some of these other mushrooms, but it does excel as a functional mushroom by helping to boost the immune system as well as providing antioxidants for fighting cancer.

In fact, extract of turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is one of the main ingredients in a leading pharmaceutical treatment for leukemia. As far as I know, n0o other mushrooms can boast search a ruminant but in the maze game pharmaceutical industry

Magic Mushrooms 101

It’s hard to have a conversation about mushrooms without eventually ending up on the topic of magic (psychedelic) mushrooms. These mushrooms come in a wide variety of different species but generally contain similar chemical compounds. The majority contain psilocybin and psilocin, although certain species such as the dangerous Amanita muscaria contain compounds like muscimol. 

Magic mushrooms were first introduced to the mainstream during the 1960s. Prior to this, they were mostly used by Mexican and Central American shamans during rituals and ceremonies.

The research and exploration of the ethnobotanist Terence McKenna led him to experience these rituals and ceremonies. Fascinated by the experience, McKenna managed to smuggle some mushroom spores back across the border. It is largely thanks to him that the popularity of magic mushrooms, particularly the Cubensis strain which remains the most common today, spread across North America.

It was noted immediately that magic mushrooms had a powerful and beneficial impact on the human psyche. For the most part these benefits were restricted to the psychedelic community, which was not closely associated with any sort of a psychotherapeutic organization.

Even though some prolific figures like Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary did advocate for the use of psychedelic medicine, their studies were cut short when psychedelics were criminalized towards the end of the 1960s.

Fortunately, research in the area of psychedelic therapy has begun in earnest once again. Many countries are realizing that the War on Drugs is not only ineffective, it’s counter-intuitive and actually increases the amount of drug use and drug-related crimes. As more governments move to decriminalize substance abuse and focus on harm reduction and rehabilitation, more scientists are turning towards these valuable substances to see what sort of medicinal value they offer.

Benefits of Magic Mushrooms

The benefits of magic mushrooms are much different than those associated with regular mushrooms. Although they might still contain the same antioxidants and phytochemicals that help to fight disease and improve immunity, their main selling point is psilocybin. Psilocybin can have a profound effect on an individual’s psychological health and well-being.

Here are a few examples.

  • Fighting depression. Psychedelics, especially under the guidance of a therapist, have helped people get to the root of issues like depression in a manner of hours as opposed to months or years. This allows them the opportunity to develop a new plan of focus that will actually uproot and overcome the depression. There have even been cases of people spontaneously recovering from
  • Managing anxiety. Much like with depression, psychedelic mushrooms can be useful for helping people get to the root cause of their anxiety and begin to chip away at.
  • PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that is often marked by the previous two issues – anxiety and depression – as well as numerous other symptoms and issues such as hallucinations, flashbacks, and difficulty maintaining social connections.Because of the complex nature of PTSD, it can be very difficult to treat without the use of persistent and relentless therapy. Even with this, there is no guarantee of success. Magic mushroom therapy has been proven to help patients who have struggled with lifelong PTSD in overcoming their condition quickly.
  • Improved focus, well-being, creativity, and energy. Microdosing magic mushrooms can be a very effective way to help improve your general health. Of course, macrodoses (full doses) can have a similar effect, although it may be more difficult or require a greater time commitment to pull anything tangible out of the experience.
  • Spiritual development. Many people of today’s day and age attribute their spiritual connection, at least in part, to the use of psychedelics. Psychedelics like magic mushrooms have traditionally been used by cultures for religious and spiritual rituals. Even without a religious or spiritual background, psychedelics tend to possess a spiritual underpinning that reveals to users that there is some sort of underlying intelligence facilitating the universe.

Growing Mushroom 101

Growing mushrooms doesn’t have to be a difficult process. However, if you want to be the best mushroom grower on the planet, you should take some time to learn the ropes.

The best way to get into the art of mushroom growing is to start simple. Order a mushroom growing kit. A mushroom grow kit will provide you with all that you need to get started growing mushrooms.

For the easiest kinds of mushrooms – usually oysters – this generally means no more than an inoculated substrate. All you’ll have to do is keep your mushrooms moist and they’ll start growing in no time.

Other mushrooms are more complicated to grow and sustain. Shelf mushrooms often need to be grown on an actual log substrate. Lion’s mane mushrooms require more precise care to fruit properly.

Once you get the hang of growing mushrooms from a kit, you’ll be able to take the rest of the mycelium that you used and inoculate a new batch with it. Then you’ll be able to sell your own mushroom grow kits to beginners and introduce others into the wonderful and nutritious world of mushrooms!

Final Thoughts on Medicinal Mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms are some of the most potent and powerful natural compounds on the planet. Though Western medicine is only recently beginning to recognize the sheer potency of these compounds, many records from traditional cultures can teach us a lot about the use of these fungi.

Whether you’re aiming to improve your cognition with Lion’s Mane or fight off the effects of aging and stress with the reishi mushroom, you can rest assured that medicinal mushrooms will propel you forward.

Written by Nigel Ford, holistic herbalist & addiction outreach worker. 

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